Romans would have been disgusted by the death of bin Laden. They expected better of their enemies, even if mass murderers, than to be supinely dispatched, cowering behind his wife, without a fight or heroic gesture.
Mithradates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor (northern Turkey), plotted against Rome for nearly 30 years. In 89 BC he launched his first assault against the Romans there, engineering the slaughter of 80,000 Roman residents on one night of the ‘Asiatic Vespers’. He was finally betrayed by his son in 63 BC while planning an assault on Italy. Having inoculated himself against poison, he ordered a slave to run him through, commenting that he had not guarded against the most treacherous of all poisons — domestic treachery. Rome’s Pompey hailed him as the greatest king of his day. Hannibal, too, tracked down to Pontus (northern Turkey) after a chance remark, took poison, ‘not wanting to put his life at anyone else’s disposal’. He became a key, and not unadmired, figure in Rome’s historical memory.
Those who were taken alive after battle were paraded in the general’s triumph. Even this was a back-handed mark of respect: no honourable Roman would celebrate the defeat of a non-entity. The Briton Caratacus held his head up before the emperor Claudius, pointing out that if he had surrendered without a fight, there would have been no glory for Claudius, and if he were to be executed, the memory of the great triumph would soon fade. He was spared.
That said, the ancient world also knew all about the mysterious grip that some could still exert in death. The crazed emperor Nero, very popular out East for his artistic and sporting performances there, killed himself in despair in AD 68. But many believed he was still alive. Sightings were reported in the East. A hotch-potch of poems constructed him as a champion against Roman tyranny, a hero of popular culture who had not really died but was waiting to return to ‘save’ his people.
Who would bet against bin Laden being turned into a similar sort of Elvis figure by his infatuated adherents?